Have you ever felt like an imposter? A phony? A fraud.
That voice in the back of your head plants seeds of doubt and discredits your accomplishments. “I don’t have what it takes.” “So far, I’ve just been lucky.” “They’re going to find out I’m not qualified.”
If so, take solace in knowing you’re not alone. An estimated 70% of people experience imposter syndrome in their lives. So, what is imposter syndrome? What are it’s signs, symptoms, and feelings?
And how can you overcome it?
What is imposter syndrome?
According to the American Psychological Association, imposter syndrome is a “pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity and incompetence despite evidence that [they] are skilled and successful.”
Those who experience it often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than ability. Moreover, they fear that others will eventually unmask them as phonies.
Clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the term in the 1970s after observing that many high-achieving individuals felt inadequate or incompetent despite their academic and professional achievements.
Some common signs of imposter syndrome include:
- Overthinking your past or future instead of living in the moment
- Feeling as though you’re less than or never enough
- Focusing on your mistakes rather than what went right
- Assigning worth to tasks based on their difficulty
- Believing anyone could do your job
Imposter syndrome can have devastating effects on your ambitions and your ability to grow your small business. It can lead you to agonize over small mistakes, discredit your accomplishments, and halt your progress.
When you think you’re not good enough, you stop trying.
In fact, even if you don’t believe you suffer from imposter syndrome, you might show signs of it.
According to the2019 Imposter Syndrome Study, 100% of respondents showed clear signs of imposter syndrome, both in their self-talk and their actions. This was true even among those who said they “never” get imposter syndrome.
Naturally, some degree of self-doubt is normal. It’s a sign of self-awareness and humility. When you know your limitations, you can work to change or accept them.
Self-doubt stops being helpful when it sabotages your ability to try new things and to grow your business. Excessive self-doubt can paralyze you instead of pushing you in the right direction.
Who’s at risk for imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome affects both men and women. According to the Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, minorities are especially prone to struggling with imposter feelings. Minorities sometimes feel as though their minority status requires them to work twice as hard as others.
What causes imposter syndrome is a combination of nature and nurture.
Research shows that people who actively feel like an imposter are more likely to be emotionally reactive and self-focused—one of the five traits of neuroticism—and are less likely to be disciplined and organized.
Nurture also plays a role. If you come from a family that valued high achievement more than anything else or if your parents switched back and forth between offering praise and being critical, you may be more susceptible to experiencing imposter syndrome.
Starting a new business or taking any kind of risk can also trigger imposter syndrome. High achievers who often set lofty expectations for themselves also may be more likely to struggle with imposter syndrome.
Although imposter syndrome isn’t recognized as an official disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), it can be debilitating—causing stress, anxiety, shame, and depression.
Depending on your background, personality and circumstances, imposter syndrome can take on various forms. There’s more than one way to feel like an imposter.
Five common types of imposter syndrome
1. The perfectionist
This individual focuses on how something is done, which includes how the work is performed and the work’s end result. If there’s one tiny flaw in an otherwise spectacular performance, the perfectionist sees it as a failure.
2. The expert
This type of imposter is the knowledge version of the perfectionist, focusing on how much he or she knows or can do. Because this individual expects to know everything, even a minor question denotes failure and shame.
3. The soloist
This individual is accustomed to achieving things on his or her own and wants to complete tasks alone. Soloists think they must figure everything out themselves and feel like they have failed if they need help from others.
4. The natural genius
Someone wrestling with this type of imposter syndrome cares about how and when accomplishments happen, but measures competence in terms of speed and ease. If an individual struggles to master a skill or subject or doesn’t produce a flawless product on the first try, he or she feels like a failure.
5. The superwoman or superman
Small business owners are especially prone to this type of imposter syndrome, which bases competence on how many roles someone can handle and excel at. These individuals feel like they should be able to handle it all—running a business, raising a family, enjoying a social life—flawlessly and easily.
How to overcome imposter syndrome
While there’s no one way to get over feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, authenticity is one of the best antidotes to imposter syndrome. In her book Daring Greatly, University of Houston research professor, bestselling author, and motivational speaker, Brené Brown, writes:
“True belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world. Our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”
As a small business owner, how you show up at work matters. If you don’t bring your authentic self to your business, you hold yourself and your business back. However, those who struggle with imposter syndrome often don’t possess the confidence they need to forge ahead. Instead, they stay put and never realize their dream even after they’ve taken steps to achieving it.
According to Lindsey Hood, an imposter syndrome coach, most people just want to feel like they’re good enough. This matters more than money. In her research, Hood found that nearly half of respondents (44%) wanted to feel they are good enough, while only 37% would change their salary.
Imposter syndrome can be crippling and keep you from living up to your potential as a small business owner. When you feel like a fraud, you don’t have to stay frozen in self-doubt.
Here are a few ways to work past those feelings …
Acknowledge how you’re feeling.
The first step to overcoming imposter syndrome is to observe and take note of how you’re feeling. Put your thoughts in perspective and ask if they help you or bring you down. It’s also helpful to reframe your thoughts. Those who don’t feel like they’re fooling someone are no smarter or more capable than anyone else; they simply respond to challenges in different ways.
Confide in someone.
Everyone experiences self-doubt from time to time—including your mentors and other entrepreneurs. Think about the people who helped you when you first started your small business. Reach out to these individuals and let them know what you’re going through. Often, they’ll have just the right bit of wisdom or insight to help you get back on track. Hearing how they responded to imposter syndrome is also helpful.
Rather than allowing your negative thoughts to fester, speak up to someone you trust. There’s a good chance you’ll come away feeling uplifted and in a better spot to shake your self-doubt.
Focus on what you can control.
When you’re running a small business, you face things every day that are out of your control. Whether it’s a key employee who turns in her resignation letter or a shipment that’s behind schedule due to bad weather, some things you simply can’t change, no matter how much you plan or how much effort you invest. Instead of getting paralyzed by all the “what-ifs,” turn your attention to what you have the power to control.
Give yourself permission to fail.
Imposter syndrome often stems from a paralyzing fear of failure. As a small business owner, this means you’re afraid to take risks and try new things.
However, failure is a critical component to growth. Train your mind to see the opportunity in failure. Expect to succeed but accept that sometimes you’ll fail. Learn from the experience.
Become your own cheerleader.
People are busy leading their own lives. You can’t wait around for your customers, employees, or even your mentors to pat you on the back for a job well done. Learn to cheer for your own accomplishments and victories, no matter how small.
When you can admire your contributions to your small business without relying on praise from others, you’ll grow in self-confidence.
Embrace a growth mindset.
When you have a growth mindset, you believe that you can develop and hone your skills. It’s the opposite of a fixed mindset, believing that your skills are based on some innate ability.
Those who have a growth mindset see self-doubts as temporary; those with a fixed mindset view them as permanent.
To tame feelings of self-doubt, try picturing your future self getting better at a particular skill, and then work backward to figure out how to get there, whether that’s taking a class, attending a conference, or gaining hands-on experience with someone in your field.
Avoid the social media trap.
Despite how carefully curated feeds may appear, not everyone is as happy and successful as they say they are on social media.
Don’t be tempted to doubt your own abilities and accomplishments when you see others posting about their successes. Instead, redesign your feeds so you benefit from your time using social media.
Try following educational, motivational, or even support group accounts. When you surround yourself with uplifting messages and posts, you can start to rise above the self-doubt you may be feeling.
Fake it until you make it.
This age-old wisdom holds true when you question your skills and worthiness as an entrepreneur. Resist the temptation to hide or give up.
If you don’t have the confidence, fake it. Rehearse acting confident.
Consider how you carry yourself, where you place your hands, how you speak to others. If you aren’t sure of yourself, pretend like you are, especially when you know you have what it takes to do your job well.
The process is slow, but over time, you’ll develop into a more confident small business owner and leader.
Don’t get derailed by doubt
Imposter syndrome is a struggle many small business owners and entrepreneurs grapple with every day.
You’re not alone if you sometimes feel like a con who’s going to get found out or that you’re just not worthy of the success and good things coming your way.
When self-doubt takes over your mind, it can be toxic. You experience mental paralysis, and you leave your ideas buried inside you. The dreams you have for yourself and your small business go unfulfilled.
There’s truth in the words of American poet and philosopher, Suzy Kazzem: “Self-doubt kills more dreams than failure does.”
Don’t let imposter syndrome prevent you from living the life you envision for yourself. In your moments of doubt, remember why you started your small business and how far you’ve already come.
Contemplate the obstacles you’ve faced in the past and how you rose above them. Have confidence that you can do it again.
For inspiration when you feel like you’re not good enough, take a few minutes to watch the TED Talks below. You can also participate in imposter syndrome research and learn how imposter syndrome affects other small business owners and entrepreneurs.